Tao Thought: Choosing and daodejing 73

One side of a ridge is cold and foggy,
The other is hot and dry.
Just by choosing where you stand,
You alter your destiny.

Those who follow Tao talk of destiny. They define destiny as the course or pattern of your life as it spontaneously takes shape. They do not think of destiny as a preordained set of circumstances. there is no rigid script for this mad stage that we are on.

Those who follow Tao then look of location. By this, they mean something as literal as where you situate your house or where you stand politically. They think that these factors are very important. Let us imagine for a moment that you had a job offer in another city far from where you were born. You move there with your family. Do you think that your life would change? We can refine this perception: If you went to a certain school, you would be educated differently. If you went into a different profession, it would change your outlook. If you lived in one neighborhood or another, you would be a different person. Every choice you make changes you.

N o matter how minor or how great, you must make choices each and every minute that passes. The irony of life is that it is a one-way journey. You cannot go back, you cannot make comparisons by trying one way and then another. There are no double-blind studies where it comes to your own life. Therefore, only wisdom will suffice to guide you.

365 Tao
Daily Meditations
Deng Ming-Dao
ISBN 0-06-250223-9
daodejing translated by current scholars

If people no longer fear death
why do we threaten to kill them

And if others fear death
and still act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else will dare

As long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner's place
is to take the carpenter's place

Who takes the carpenter's place
is bound to hurt his hands



If people don't love life,
they won't fear death,
and threatening them with it won't work.

If people have lives worth living,
then the threat of death is meaningful,
and they'll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province
of the great executioner alone.
Trying to take his place and kill
is like cutting wood
in the place of the master carpenter:

The odds are you'll hurt your own hand.


If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
chances are that you'll cut your hand.


Stanford Studies on Daoism


  • The Laozi Story
  • Date and Authorship of the Laozi
  • Textual Traditions
  • Commentaries
  • Approaches to the Laozi

Approaches to the Laozi

At the political level, the Laozi condemns aggressive measures such as war (ch. 30), cruel punishment (ch. 74), and heavy taxation (75), which reflect but the ruler's own desire for wealth and power. If the ruler could rid himself of desire, according to the Laozi, the world would be at peace of its own accord (chs. 37, 57).

In this sense, the Laozi describes the ideal sage-ruler as someone who understands and follows ziran (e.g., chs. 2, 17, 64). In this same sense, it also opposes the Confucian program of benevolent intervention, which as the Laozi understands it, addresses at best the symptoms but not the root cause of the disease. The Confucian project is in fact symptomatic of the decline of the rule of Dao. Conscious efforts at cultivating moral virtues only accentuate the loss of natural goodness, which in its original state would have been entirely commonplace and would not have warranted distinction or special attention (chs. 18, 38). Worse, Confucian ethics assumes that learning and moral self-cultivation can bring about personal and social improvement. From the Daoist perspective, artificial effort to “improve” things or to correct the order of ziran only fuels a false sense of self that alienates human beings from their inherent “virtue.”

The concept of nonaction is exceedingly rich. It brings into play a cutting discernment that value distinctions are ideological, that human striving and competitive strife spring from the same source. Nonaction entails also a critique of language and conventional knowledge, which to the Daoist sage has become impregnated with ideological contaminants. The use of paradoxes in the Laozi especially heightens this point. For example, the person of Dao is depicted as “witless” or “dumb,” whereas people driven by desire appear intelligent and can scheme with cunning (ch. 20). The way of learning, as one would normally understand, “increases” the store of knowledge and adds value to goods and services; in contrast, questioning the very meaning of such “knowledge” and “value,” the Laozi describes the pursuit of Dao as constantly “decreasing” or chipping away at the artifice built by desire (ch. 48). Driving home the same point, to cite but one more example, the Laozi states, “The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore it has virtue” (ch. 38). In other words, those who fully realize “virtue” in the Daoist sense do not act in the way that men and women of conventional morality typically act or are expected to act. Paradoxes of this kind function as a powerful rhetorical device, which forces the reader, so to speak, to move out of his or her “comfort zone” and to take note of the proposed higher truth of Dao (see also, e.g., chs. 41, 45, 56). In this context, one can also understand some of the provocative statements in the Laozi telling the ruler, for example, to keep the people in a state of “ignorance” (ch. 65).

a reading list of books and interpretations of the Daodejing is available at
archived at

No comments: